Letters to the Editor
|FAITH Magazine May-June 2008|
Dear Father Editor,
William Charlton (‘A Question of Matter’, Letters, Jan/Feb issue) supports the view that modern science is in opposition to the account of physical reality given by Thomas Aquinas, or at least by his disciples. In response, I would like to indicate some of the areas where I think agreement may be found between the two.
Firstly, there is a methodological similarity, at least in this important respect: that scientists in their theories and Thomas in his philosophy both start from the real, existing physical entity. Science today in fact has some of the traits of a metaphysical system, since it postulates entities, forces and causes that are not objects of immediate or even mediate experience, but which are seen as necessary to explain those which are. And this is said pejoratively neither of metaphysics nor of science, since the quest for coherent explanation is intrinsic to the nature and dignity of human reason itself. In this way, modern science treads the same path that Aquinas, and others like him, trod many centuries ago.
Then, there is common ground with regard to the nature of our physical world. Often Thomas is accused of a “static” view of reality, where unchanging forms are somehow fused with formless matter – precluding the possibility of evolution among other things. I believe this does not do him justice; it ascribes to him a Platonic mindset which he was in fact keen to reject. The study of Aristotle endowed him with a vision of a cosmos in perpetual movement, a dynamic ‘macrosphere’ that emerges out of dynamism and exchange in the ‘microsphere’. Aristotle (and certainly Thomas) taught that forms, rather than “coming into” matter from outside, are actually “educed” from the inner dynamism of matter itself at a lower level of complexity, all the way down to the interchange of the “elementalqualities” (which appear almost as primal ‘tendencies’ rather than anything substantial). Animal life, for example, appears as a decisive advance in a cosmic process of actualisation of the real potencies inherent in matter at lower levels: an advance, however, which is not simply reducible to the tendencies (ultimately thermodynamic: form is like fire, which “tends towards the limit”, says Aristotle) that gave rise to it. We must of course make a special exception for human life, which transcends this evolutionary process in a far more radical way.
This process of incrementation of form and of order cannot explain itself, as Aristotle correctly observes: a process displaying such finality and regularity must have some principle of order outside the process itself. This is understood by Aristotle as the sun, a perpetual movement which causes perpetual change. For Thomas, though, the sun too is a creature: its real causality is only understood with reference to the One who “made heaven and earth”, the only true source of unity and finality in the cosmos.
In this cosmology, allowing for the 800- year development of vocabulary and knowledge, we can see openness to biological and cosmic evolution, complexity, emergence, matter as density-of-energy – all cherished by modern science – as well as metaphysics, finality and theology, which the Church seeks to uphold and defend: all of which, incidentally, your magazine seeks to bring together, too.
One of the things Dr Charlton took issue with was prime matter. This is not an “alternative view” of the ultimate substratum, which “competes” with the view described briefly above: Thomas never saw it that way. Instead, it represents a deepening of the same view. However, the point of this letter is principally to draw attention to the common ground between classical Thomistic and modern scientific visions of the world. Having done this as well as I could, let me leave the complex subject of prime matter for another time!
Pontificio Collegio Scozzese
EDITORIAL COMMENT: We thank Mr Deighan for his constructive contribution to this debate. Faith Magazine is of course in no sense “against” Thomas. We only argue the need to develop and update his metaphysical perspective to meet the new discoveries and insights into matter that science has uncovered. It would not surprise us at all to find that the seeds of such development can be found within his own work. The important thing is to make the necessary developments in both philosophy and theology which will allow us to present the Catholic faith to the modern world again in an orthodox and intellectually convincing way – not least to defend the realistic concept of ‘human nature’, as did St Thomas, and does our current editorial.
SCIENCE AND THE BIBLE
Dear Father Editor,
I greatly admire the intellectual quality of your articles but, as a simple Bible and Penny Catechism man, let me make a few comments about Christian thinking in general and thinking about origins in particular.
The confident expectation of a lot of your writers is that the creation process will eventually be made plain by science. This is gross presumption and quite untenable by Catholics. What guidance does the Bible give here?
The words ‘science’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘reason’ do not find any place in sacred scripture which puts the source of human knowledge in the ‘heart’. Truth has to be comprehended holistically and resonate with the whole being, not just the brain and its science.
In my Bible concordance the word ‘heart’, including when preceded by a pronoun, is used no less than 640 times approximately! It is introduced by the following preamble: ‘The word heart is used in Scripture as the seat of life or strength; hence it means mind, soul, spirit, or one’s entire emotional nature and understanding ...’ The word ‘thought’ does have about 110 entries but close inspection reveals that these are ‘thoughts of the heart’. Descartes with his ‘cognito ergo sum’ is seen here to be only half alive.
If anyone were to be given the grace to understand the ‘how’ of creation it would be, not a scientist, but a mystic of a very high order indeed and the only one in this category we have so far is Moses. His testimony constitutes our entire evidence.
The Lord’s question to Job when cutting him down to size was, ‘Where wert thou when I laid the foundations of the Earth?’ How tinny and shallow would any theory of ‘evolution’ sound in such an encounter.
Mr. Jim Allen
EDITORIAL COMMENT: Please see the catechism quotations on page 16.
Dear Father Editor,
It was with particular interest that I read the comments by Mgr.Cormac Burke (letters, Jan. 2008) concerning the Knox translation of the Bible, because I had been wondering about the advantages and disadvantages of continuing to use ‘thou’ and ‘thine’.
But whether or not it was a mistake, as Mgr Burke concludes, for Ronald Knox to keep to the outdated ‘thou’ form, a different question arises when reading the Knox account of the wedding feast of Cana. According to earlier translations into English, including the 1582 Rheims, the 1611 King James and the 1845 Douai, at Cana the Mother of Jesus says to her Son, ‘they have no wine’ (Jn.2.1-3), but in the 1945 Knox version Mary says ‘they have no wine left. ’
Replacing outdated words is one thing, but adding to the biblical text an extra word with a distinct meaning of its own is a different matter, and some later translations into English, including the Revised Standard Version (1952), the Jerusalem Bible (1966), the New American Bible (1969) and the New Revised Standard Version (1989), have kept to the earlier ‘they have no wine’. But others, among them the Revised English Bible (1970), the Good News Bible (1976) and the New Revised English Bible (1989) now include the word ‘left’, even though doing so limits the ways in which Mary’s words to her Son might be interpreted.
The only reason for adding this word seems to be that it ‘sounds better’, but is that reason enough for inserting a new word into the gospel text? Or is there evidence of similar wording in any ancient text in any language?
QUR’AN AS UNCREATED WORD?
Dear Father Editor,
Having read the January/February issue I am reminded of a recent comment by Dr Patrick Sookhdeo that love is not central to Islam as it is to Christianity.
In Islam love seems to be an optional extra which was introduced into its mainstream by the Sufis. In contrast, the Wahhabis – the puritan tendency represented by Saudi Arabia and al Qaeda – insists that the judgment that God ought to be loved is a Christian and pagan intrusion.
Another important point your magazine made is that it is of orthodox Islam that the Qur’an is uncreated. This orthodoxy is universally held by Sunni Muslims, but not by Shi’a. The only identifiable Sunni school of thought which believed that the Qur’an was created were the Mu’tazilah who were definitively suppressed by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawwakil during the ninth century.
To be fair to the Muslims, it is important to clarify that they believe that the spoken sounds of the Qur’an, the paper, cover and bindings of its earthly copies and the written words and letters are themselves created. What is uncreated, having existed with Allah from eternity, is the ideas which these express.
This doctrine simply will not do. According to St Thomas (ST Ia Q15 A3) ideas such as those in the Qur’an are types, or archetypes. The archetypes of all things merely possible are present in the Divine Intellect from eternity, not that they exist, but that they are present to God as objects of knowledge. The only idea which can rightly be said to exist is the uncreated Word of God which has the same existence as God and proceeds from Him by eternal generation.
Balfour Road, Brighton
DISCERNING DISCOMFORT AT POLISH WORSHIP
Dear Father Editor,
I read with interest William Oddie’s comments on the recent phenomenon of Polish immigrants to England and their demonstrably evident devotion to their Catholic faith. The same situation exists in Scotland.
It is a conundrum to tease out why such evident devotion and implicit belief in what the Church teaches, should make the indigenous Catholics feel not a little uncomfortable. This is borne out in the comparison that is evident in the approach to the celebration of the Eucharist by Polish Mass goers, as opposed to that shown by increasing numbers of Catholics in Scotland. The contrast is obvious and sadly, embarrassing. In Masses attended by the Polish faithful, the silent, prayerful attitude before the celebration, and the rapt oblivion to everything else during it, invites us to glimpse our lost childhood’s faith.
Is it any wonder then, that the Polish incomers would feel more fulfilled when attending “ Polish Masses”? Indeed, there are those non-Polish among us who are attracted to these Masses by reason of the difference we find there.
Converts, after much heart searching, who left fine Protestant churches in the last twenty years, lured by the very mystery of the Eucharist, that dimension to faith like no other; enraptured by the discovery of the Saints, the Rosary, Eucharistic adoration, and all the kaleidoscopic depth and colour promised, too often have found themselves in a church ill at ease with these beliefs. Such beliefs, whose very mystique has rendered them too uncomfortable to be proclaimed, contend with our need to be accepted in the smart world. Instead of these mysteries of our faith being cherished, they have often been neglected at best; at worst, openly ridiculed.
So, when Catholics appear among us, who still hold dear these sacred treasures, because the vulgar requirements of a materialistic society have not yet diluted their faith, it affects the onlookers in different ways. There is a defensive reaction from some; others feel relief and even hope.
The old educational theory of “regression to norm” will not take place, God willing, before our Polish friends have exerted an influence upon us that is for the good of the Catholic Church here.
Bathgate West Lothian
WORRIES ABOUT THE MENTAL CAPACITY ACT GUIDE
Dear Father Editor,
Might I encourage a careful review of the “Practical Guide” to the Mental Capacity Act recently published by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference through the CTS.
On a cursory reading I was concerned. Archbishop Smith’s introduction sets the tone of what I consider to be a document which misleads in its interpretation of the law. The description on page 6 of the ambiguous phrases incorporated into the Act by the government following Catholic lobbying as “important safeguards” seems questionable. In particular the document places great stress upon the Act’s affirmation that “decisions about life-sustaining treatment must not be motivated by a desire to bring about the person’s death”, which is seen as curing most of the Act’s ills.
Much pressure is put upon this by what the document calls the “problematic features” that “The Act unfortunately retains a feature of recent English Law ... acceptance of certain decisions to bring about death”, namely intentional killing by “omission”, even and especially “of food and water” (p.19).
Section 2.2 on the Act’s “Key Principles” makes no reference to the relevant principle of transferable autonomy, and this is not discussed in the guide at all as far as I can see.
On the plus side, the glossary of terms at the end seems good, but I think this is still misleading in that a reader could think that these terms have those meanings in the Act, whereas the major point is that they do not. The appendix on character and conscience contains some helpful things, although I doubt whether the illustration at the end, concerning the possibility of working to make implements used in an abortuary, would have been as acceptable to the Bishops if the subject were torture rather than abortion.
Melton Mowbray Leicestershire